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Responses to Bombadil

May 19th, 2005 | 5 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Many thanks for the links and the feedback on the Bombadil piece. I realized when I was writing it that it's a tendentious position, and that most would disagree with the interpretation. As I mentioned, I submitted it here and to the Torrey newsletter, but I'm happy if they don't publish it as I'm not sure I'd ever get the feedback I wanted. That said, here's the feedback and some replies:

Jim said:
This site (and the article it refers to) might be useful to you.
I actually read the latter before I submitted it. I don't know enough of the external evidence to make much of it, but I'm not sure that his analysis and mine are mutually exclusive, since his seems more about Bombadil's "species" in Middle-Earth. I wonder myself is Bombadil is not sui generis. After all, Goldberry remarks simply that "He is," and Bombadil resists the Hobbit's attempts to add any information after his name.

Andrew Selby said:
Nice bit of writing, Matt.One sentence that needs clarification is when you assert "The Genesis-esque character of Bombadil reinforces the ‘natural loves’ interpretation." I sort of intuitively know what you mean, but I'd be interested by a sentence of your explanation.
Well, perhaps I'm seeing a bad version of Thomistic nature/grace dualism here, but my intent was to communicate that Bombadil represents a sort of "natural" state of affairs, a type of pre-lapsarian, edenic state. Hence the "natural loves," as opposed to those loves that might be divinely infused. In the Great Divorce, Lewis has a woman in hell who is slavishly devoted to her son. Her love is "natural", and "natural loves" move us higher on the ascent to heaven, yet are not sufficient in themselves. I see Bombadil as representing this.

Lynn said:
To call our affection for Bombadill a mark of our immaturity, and to name Bombadill as irresponsible for "fencing himself in" is to misinterpret this difficult scene. Whatever Bombadill is, he is a positive character and there are two quick reasons for this. The first is his love and dominion over nature (very elvish / hobbit like of him). We are already unsucspicious of him for this.
First, welcome to Mere-O! I hope you'll continue to participate. This is exactly the common interpretation that I'm challenging. I don't discount that he's "good," but in the way that natural affections are "good"--they are appropriate for a season, but must ultimately be transcended.

The second is that he is the only character in the whole of the Trilogy that is unaffected by the ring. His ability to play with it and not be controled is far from a mark of immaturity (immaturity is seen in the Fellowship through Boromir). Rather, Frodo's shame at being seen when he puts the ring on suggests that it is Frodo who has to mature, not Bombadill.
I thought of this, and I'm not quite persuaded. The whole scene with Bombadil and the Ring left me rather suspicious of Bombadil himself. After all, Bombadil does interrupt Frodo's story to ask to see the Ring, and does so "suddenly." I am curious as to what compels him to ask that--it suggests to me that even though the Ring has no power over him, he is not immune from the power of the Ring. The second thing is that when Bombadil holds the Ring up to his eye, it is both "comical and alarming" to the Hobbits. In short, Bombadil doesn't strike me as the sort of "dangerous" charachter Aslan does--he strikes me as powerful, good, and yet not incapable of being bad (unlike Aslan).

Finally, over on Jonathan's site, Jesse Thorgerson responded to my post in the comments section. He writes (and it's quite good, so I'll quote in full):

I just read Anderson's review. I think he is right until he tries to take a moral lesson from Bombadil.

The idea is expressed in a much more nuamced way, but if this is the point, I think he is a bit off: "the joys of this world are real, yet they are not the highest or the deepest available to us. They are “less keen and lofty,” and “nearer the mortal heart”—so much nearer that we are tempted to remain with them, as Bombadil has chosen."

Anderson has correctly presented how Bombadil is used in Frodo's journey (which is not necessarily supposed to be our journey -- this is not Pilgrim's Progress). However, Bombadil himself is good: he is incorrupt. A saint, if you will. But he is meant for another time, or perhaps for all times. The quest for the Ring is not his quest. Remember, Middle Earth has had many ages, and many ages are to come: Bombadil does not end with one of them, and so his place is not to fight in the wars that define the age. He is who he is: a keeper of the fields and forests perhaps.

Anderson is most right to liken him to Adam. For an Inklings literary parallel, I think of Father Time at the and of the Last Battle. We do not see him arise and cry out, "Where the hell have you been this whole time, Father Time!?!? In case you didn't notice, we sure could have used a GIANT in that LAST BATTLE." Like Father Time, Bombadil is a sort of guardian of the world: he is at one with it, and that is his proper telos. He is not to be emulated but neither can he be judged, any more than can the fields and brooks he wanders over.

The comment is insightful and very helpful. Yet I'm not sure we disagree. When Gandalf mentions the possibility of Sauron getting the Ring, he says of Bombadil, "then he will fall, Last as he was First, and then the End will come." If Bomabdil is tied to Middle Earth, then when Middle Earth falls, so will he. And yet I can't help but wonder if Tolkien is suggesting that there's a world beyond Middle Earth that remains untouched by time, and pleasures beyond Bombadil's domain that Bombadil cannot (or will not, as I have suggested) attain. Perhaps readers could help me understand the concept of the Grey Havens, but my thesis is simply that Bombadil's delights are shadows of the delights to come--shadows that seem so real that Frodo is tempted to remain there.

Update: Milton Stanley writes:
I enjoyed it too, and I think your analysis is on-target. But I'm not sure I understand this sentence near the beginning: "The final impulse to overcome the now prohibitive love of Bombadil. . . " Did you mean to say Bilbo? In either case, I'm not sure I understand what that love is and why it's prohibative. Peace.

Yes, I did mean to say Bilbo. I will change it accordingly. Thanks for pointing it out.

It seems that his love for Bilbo is what might keep him from accepting his "quest" to take the Ring to Mt. Doom. In this way, it seems a hinderance or an obstacle that needs to be overcome. Perhaps "prohibative" isn't the right word.

On another note, thanks for the comment. This has been an incredibly fruitful excercise for me!

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.